Acquittal upheld for Berlusconi

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The Independent Online

Italy's highest court yesterday upheld the acquittal of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi on corruption charges, a lawyer said.

The ruling came just as Berlusconi has stepped up his demands for early elections in a bid to return to power. The conservative Berlusconi has served as opposition leader since losing the April 2006 vote to the center-left coalition of Romano Prodi, the current premier.

In 2004, a Milan court cleared Berlusconi of charges that he had bribed judges in connection with the sale of the SME state food conglomerate in the 1980s, before the media magnate entered politics. The court cleared Berlusconi on one count and said the statute of limitations had run out on a second.

In April, an appeals court acquitted him on all charges, and Friday's ruling upheld that verdict, said defense lawyer Piersilvio Cipollotti.

The SME case dates back to a decade before Berlusconi stepped into politics and took the lead of the conservative camp. He was then part of a group of magnates seeking to buy SME.

In a battle over the company, judges ruled in a 1985 case in favor of Berlusconi's group by blocking the company's sale to a rival industrialist. In the end, SME was sold to neither party, and the food group was later sold off in pieces.

Berlusconi has said that he got involved in the deal at the request of Bettino Craxi, premier at the time, and only to serve the nation's best interest. In a rare court appearance years ago, Berlusconi told the court that, since the company was about to be sold off too cheaply, he stepped in after Craxi's pleas.

Long plagued by judicial troubles linked to his media empire, Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing, maintaining that he is the victim of a political vendetta orchestrated by left-leaning magistrates.

In previous cases, Berlusconi has either been acquitted or seen cases against him dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.